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Facebook’s embrace of bots is actually about making Facebook more human

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

At Facebook’s F8 developer conference this week, CEO Mark Zuckerberg made it clear that the social network is going all in on artificial intelligence.

Using A.I., Zuckerberg said, “We can all make faster progress together.” The most prominent new way Facebook is applying this: interactive bots inside Facebook Messenger that will answer your questions and offer goods and services. In separate talks, Zuckerberg and Facebook’s VP of Messenger, David Marcus, raved about using Messenger to get CNN news updates from a bot, shopping deals from a bot, and weather reports from a bot. They painted the addition of interactive chat bots as a bold new frontier.

But if you ask the folks at weather app Poncho, which was one of Facebook’s “launch partners” for the new Messenger Platform and was lucky enough to be used as a prime example on stage, there is a way of looking at Facebook’s bot bonanza simply as an embrace of behavior that users already exhibit.

“Bots have been around for a long time, and usually with a negative cloud around them,” says Sam Mandel, CEO of Poncho. “But a bot is just a way to interact on a platform, and we think it’s the way most people already want to interact with services. Conversational interface is the classic, human way of finding information, and in a way, we’re just now bringing that to mobile devices. And mobile is the only format that really matters now, it’s clear.”

Mandel makes a good point: For all the buzz around Facebook’s push into bots, the technology isn’t new, and Facebook isn’t the first to use it. In February, to name one example, the Atlantic Media-owned news site Quartz launched a news app that earned plaudits for its interface. The app greets users (“good afternoon”) and offers up a news story; you can either tap an emoji (or sometimes a word-prompt like “tell me more”) to continue reading it, or, “anything else?” to get a different story. The experience makes getting the news interactive, and even a little amusing. And it’s an example of how chat bots can be personalized to feel like they’re really responding to you.

That has been the idea of Poncho since its inception two years ago—it sends you weather updates via email or text message, from Poncho the Weather Cat, a bot in the guise of a friendly feline character. But Facebook Messenger may be the very best use for the service yet, so the company is going all in.

Ask Poncho for the weather, and he’ll tell you the temperature and conditions in your area—simple enough. But he can get chattier: “Are you sensitive to pollen? Do you have fancy hair? Should I send you pollen or frizz alerts?” he asked me in our first interaction. When I tapped yes to the pollen alerts (spring allergies) he pushed again on the hair: “And how’s your hair? Shall I send you frizz alerts?” He’s really interested in my hair. (I declined the frizz alerts, thanks.) When I wanted to know specifically if I’ll need an umbrella later today, Poncho needed a few nudges to understand the question. But he will eventually get better at answering questions asked in a colloquial manner, Mandel says.

Mandel tells Yahoo Finance he expects Facebook Messenger to quickly become the primary use case for Poncho. “We’re not giving up on other platforms,” he says, “but my expectation is that certainly over the next year or so the conversation option will become the most important. I think the right way to see what Facebook is doing is that users have already moved to these messaging platforms, and so we need to go there too. And I think eventually brands all have to figure out how to get their message across on these platforms.”

Ron Gutman, CEO of HealthTap, another launch partner that already has an active bot in Facebook Messenger, echoes a similar notion. “Text is the primary way everyone communicates now. You do almost everything through messages.” He doesn’t just mean services that are overtly for messaging, like iMessage or WhatsApp, but any platform on which communication happens through instantaneous text, which is almost every social tech tool nowadays. It’s Twitter, Snapchat, WeChat, Weibo, Path, Peach, and others. It’s also traditional search, like Google and Yahoo. Users type a message and expect an instant reply. Hence the HealthTap bot, which answers medical questions live inside Messenger, and can connect you with a doctor on live video, if you need it.

Of course, Facebook is now offering sponsored messages, too, which means that while brands rush to build bots for the platform, advertisers are also drooling. It’s all an effort to come to consumers where they already are, behaviorally—that is, living in instant text—rather than make them come to a new app or platform. Right now, 900 million people use the Messenger app regularly; Facebook wants that figure to approach the 1.5 billion that use Facebook itself each month.

Its embrace of bots isn’t prescient or predictive—it’s a reaction to what’s already happening. But make no mistake: it’s a big deal, and could herald a new normal in social tech. “We think the transition to conversational interfaces will be the biggest transition we’ve seen since the transition from static web pages to streams, like Twitter,” says Mandel. “The goal is to take the content to where users are, seamlessly.”

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Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.

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